I feel like it’s the second day of Rosh Hashanah - everyone blew their energy and excitement on the Cavs and Warriors last night, and now who’s left to pay attention to the lowly dregs making up the rest of the league? Anyway, let’s get to it:
Miami @ Orlando, 7 pm. For the first time since 2002, the Heat open a season without Dwyane Wade – so who’s team is this? Hassan Whiteside is the max player and PER superstar, but Goran Dragic will be the high-usage fulcrum of the offense, at least until Pat Riley ships him to a point guard-needy playoff contender. The Magic must also rebuild around several new faces, but at least early in the season, Frank Vogel’s big-heavy defense (led by offseason additions Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo) will keep offense-light teams like Miami in check. I’m interested to watch how they pair Nik Vucevic, and whether Aaron Gordon gets most of his minutes at power forward, where his explosiveness and lack of shooting play much better than on the wing.
Tonight, at least, Orlando cobbles enough scoring together from Evan Fournier and Mario Hezonja, goes with their huge frontcourt only sparingly, and picks up a comfortable win over their downstate rivals.
Dallas @ Indiana, 7 pm. These are not the Pacers that kept Miami LeBron up at night. No Roy Hibbert, no David West. Even shipping out George Hill for Jeff Teague looks like a downgrade at point guard. With a full post-injury season now under his belt, Paul George looks to re-establish himself as one of the few truly dominant two-way players in the game, and will be in a system uniquely tailored to his strengths (whether he recognizes it and actually wants to play the 4 or not).
Dallas will have to make peace with failing to find a second star to extend Dirk Nowitzki’s championship window, and are a prime candidate to fall out of the postseason picture. Harrison Barnes gets swallowed up by George in his Mavericks debut, Andrew Bogut can only shore up the defense so much playing alongside Dirk and the leaky point guard triumverate of Deron Williams, JJ Barea and Seth Curry. Monta Ellis jitterbugs his way to a big night against his former club, and Indianapolis pulls away late to seal the win.
Brooklyn @ Boston, 7:30 pm. Boston can get both their 2016-17 and future off to a rousing start against the franchise that gifted them such a radical and rapid rebuild. Benefactors so generous they’d make Abel Magwitch blush, in 2013 Brooklyn gave Danny Ainge three unprotected firsts and a pick swap (along with massive cap relief and a fresh slate) for the already-old Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry. The salary space has turned into three above-average or better starters: Jae Crowder and All-Stars Isiah Thomas and Al Horford. And as Brooklyn has descended into a pit of basketball hopelessness, the Celtics’ draft haul looks ever-juicier; they picked up James Young in 2014, #3 overall pick Jaylen Brown this year, have the right to trade firsts with Brooklyn in 2017, and have the Nets’ 2018 first-rounder outright, with no protections whatsoever.
Horford has been integrating seamlessly into Brad Stevens’ starless movement-based offense, and when paired with incumbent seven-footer Kelly Olynyk, is able to open up a Warriors-lite setup with both bigs dragging their markers away from the paint, inviting herky-jerky drives and awkward, yet effective, finished from both Thomas and Marcus Smart.
Detroit @ Toronto, 7:30 pm. Reggie Jackson’s knee tendinitis leaves a potential hotshot team without its linchpin and offensive string-puller. Stan Van Gundy has built a roster long on defense, intermediate scoring, and, well, length, but with a very limited ability to shoot the three or attack the rim. Teams will duck underneath Andre Drummond’s screens for Ish Smith even more than they did for Jackson, daring Smith to shoot and preventing Drummond from getting a clean roll to the rim. Both Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris operate best with the ball in their hands, creating their own shots in the same midrange space. Smith eventually grew into a solid alley-oop partner for Nerlens Noel last year, so we’ll still see Drummond near the NBA leaderboard in dunks, but without a more open lane or a little extra gear off the bounce, expect the Pistons to try to grind out low-scoring wins until Jackson’s return.
Meanwhile, in the great white north, Jonas Valanciunas needs to hit another level of development if the defending Eastern Conference finalists want to keep pace with Boston, much less hang with the King in Cleveland. Toronto enters the final year of Kyle Lowry’s contract with a top-five backcourt, a 24-year-old double-double threat in the post, and a whole bunch of question marks everywhere else. With Jared Sullinger on the shelf, Dwane Casey still hasn’t addressed the Raptors’ glaring lack of a power forward. For the time being, DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson can hold down the fort while giving up some size, and DeMar DeRozan and Lowry go off in this one.
Charlotte @ Milwaukee, 8 pm. This one is all about Point Giannis. After Jason Kidd handed him the ball in February, Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 18.8/8.6/7.2 from the All-Star Break, shooting over 50 percent, with 1.4 steals and just under two blocks a game. With Khris Middleton slated to miss much, if not all, of the season, Milwaukee will need to put the ball in the obscenely-sized hands of their 6'11, 21-year-old Athenian praying mantis even more than at the end of last year. Greg Monroe is coming off the bench to give the second unit a bit more scoring punch, but for the Bucks to get back on their upward trajectory from a year ago, they’ll need a Giannis-lite leap from second-year forward Jabari Parker, focusing on extending his shooting range and getting quicker tracking smaller fours outside the paint.
Kemba Walker stepped up last season, showing he can shoulder the load for an NBA playoff team following his heroics at UConn; let’s hope it’s sustainable. His efficiency jumped markedly as he shot 37 percent from downtown, while seeing a slight uptick in his usage as well. Nic Batum saw a similar jump in his first season in the Queen City, though his projections are almost entirely dependent on health rather than skill regression. On nights when Walker, Batum, and Marvin Williams all look closer to the 2014-15 versions of themselves, Charlotte will really miss Jeremy Lin’s secondary playmaking and Courtney Lee’s shooting. Tonight is not that night, as Milwaukee just doesn’t have the firepower to keep up with the Hornets as Walker repeatedly burns Matthew Dellavedova.
Minnesota @ Memphis, 8 pm. Grit N’ Grind is dead - though Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and even Tony Allen live on in Memphis. Confused? Me too. New coach David Fizdale, a longtime Miami assistant, promises a more uptempo, modern style, but that’s a lot to ask of JaMychal Green, James Ennis, and whatever is left of Chandler Parsons’ knees. A fully-healthy Gasol is still a game-changer at both ends, but here he squares off against his evolutionary prototype.
I don’t think I’m breaking any news by saying that Karl-Anthony Towns is ready to leap into the NBA stratosphere this season. Equally adept on the perimeter or the block, with anticipation and floor vision that belie both his size and age (7-feet and NOT EVEN 21 YET WHAT THE HELL I HATE HIM SO MUCH), Towns came into the league and, as a teenaged rookie, almost immediately usurped Anthony Davis as the generation-defining ‘center of the future.’ Boosted by inefficient volume from Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, the Baby Wolves get a one-game lead on one of their chief competitors at the bottom of the West playoff picture.
Denver @ New Orleans, 8 pm. A year ago, this would have been one of the more exciting games on the slate. As it is, Anthony Davis needs a big, healthy season to restore much of the luster that’s faded as his body and Dell Demps’ acquisitions have conspired to put a future MVP candidate - and 23-year-old pterodactyl - on one of the most boring, poorly-constructed teams in the NBA. Gone are Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, theoretically if infrequently the shooters who were supposed to give Davis space to operate. Still around? Jrue Holiday (when healthy), Tyreke Evans (when healthy), and Omer Asik, who limits Davis defensively by parking himself no more than 5 feet from the rim at all times, and never met a pass or offensive rebound that he can’t fumble back to the opposition.
Denver, on the other hand, is chock full of super-intriguing, yet super-flawed, prospects. Can imposing brute Jusuf Nurkic and advanced-metric darling Nikola Jokic team for enough stops to unleash their high-low passing game? Can Emmanuel Mudiay hit a jump shot? If not, can Jamal Murray play point guard at an NBA level? Expect this one to be heavy on the Mudiay/Danilo Gallinari two-man offense, with Denver eking out a close win.
Oklahoma City @ Philadelphia, 8 pm, ESPN. Does Russell Westbrook score 70 points tonight? Throw up a 50-20-20? Angry, and now shouldering the load as the unquestioned MAN in OKC, Westbrook’s range of outcomes is limited only by the imagination: he’s registered triple-doubles in his last three meetings with Philadelphia, including a 20-15-10 in just 32 minutes last season and an awe-inspiring 49-15-10 sans Durant in March 2015. Brett Brown will send help from every angle – particularly with Robert Covington or whomever is “guarding” Anthony Roberson – but even with the Sixers’ abundance of size, the bigs have to stay home or get eaten alive on the offensive glass by Steven Adams and Enes Kanter.
Joel Embiid flashes the talent that makes him the crown jewel of The Process, but his minute restrictions and Philly’s lack of anyone even resembling a shot creator turn this into an early rout.
Sacramento @ Phoenix, 10 pm. Does anyone actually want to be in Sacramento? Neither Rudy Gay nor Ben McLemore figures to end the season as Kings, and the jury is still out on superstar Demarcus Cousins and even newly-hired coach Dave Joerger. The league’s most selfish, dysfunctional team opens without point guard Darren Collison, suspended for their first eight games after a domestic violence arrest. We may see an on-court fistfight between teammates this year!
Phoenix has talent, but way too many redundancies to make any noise this year. Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender won’t contribute for at least a season or two, and while Devin Booker flashed more ball skills than expected as the youngest rotation player in the league as a rookie, he’ll move back over to the 2 with the return of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. Phoenix overpowers a Kings team that has started the season already reeling, but they need to avoid getting excited and pushing their timeline forward - a bad front office decision that ended up hindering them greatly last season.
Houston @ LA Lakers, 10:30 pm, ESPN. Mike D’Antoni finds his new muse. Somehow, the architect of Seven Seconds Or Less has found a way to make Houston’s offense even faster and more three-point heavy than before, and it begins and ends with James Harden. With erstwhile starter Patrick Beverley on the shelf, Harden takes over de facto point guard duties, and could very well be the first non-Oscar Robertson in NBA history to average 25/10/5 a night (Robertson managed the feat FIVE times in six seasons between 1961-67). With no Dwight Howard, and Pelicans castoffs Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson spotting up around his drives, Harden is likely to have a better offensive season than he did when contending for the MVP two years ago.
Houston sprints past and shoots around a shaky Lakers team, struggling to coalesce and develop their post-Kobe identity around a new coach and unproven set of future stars.